Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain by Paul Corthorn

The politics of decline and nationhood…

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For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.

Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.

The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.

Enoch Powell

(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)

There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.

Paul Corthorn

Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.

An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

All Power to the Soviets!

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Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time. He admits to his own bias, but claims that he has rigorously fact-checked, including only what can be verified in written records. In order to stop the book reading like an autobiography or memoir, he refers to himself in the third person throughout. I ended up with 24 A4 pages of notes on this 900-page book, so will be summarising and paraphrasing brutally to keep this review even close to a readable length. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s highly likely that a different reader would disagree with my interpretations or emphases.

Trotsky begins by giving a fascinating explanation of why revolutions arise, and how they differ from other forms of changes of government, even violent ones. His position is that the involvement of the masses is key – that a tipping point is reached when people suddenly feel they cannot tolerate the existing regime any longer. Therefore the masses create the demagogue to lead them once that point is reached, rather than the demagogue being the starting point. This section, and other sections where Trotsky talks in general terms on political theory, are excellent – intelligent, concise and clear; and the translation is remarkable, especially for such a complex subject. The translator, Max Eastman, knew Trotsky and was well aware of the events under discussion, which perhaps makes his translation transcend the literal.

Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd July 4th 1917, when troops of the Provisional Government opened fire with machine guns.

Next Trotsky explains the historical background which brought Russia to the tipping point. His argument, in summary, is that for geographical and cultural reasons Russia was a backwards nation, politically and economically, so that, when it came under pressure from the encroaching Western powers to industrialise and modernise, it did so by jumping some of the steps that those more developed countries had already gone through. He calls this the law of combined development. This sudden industrialisation led to skewed figures in terms of the percentage of the population employed in huge industrial concerns – this new industrial class, the proletariat, forming an ideal environment for revolutionary ideas to ferment. And the increased poverty and suffering brought on by the lengthy war – an imperialist war – sped up the natural progression towards the revolutionary tipping point. At all stages, Trotsky’s argument is that the pressure for revolution came from the masses upwards, and that the Bolsheviks merely gave guidance to the process of insurrection through providing a Marxist-based political education to the workers.

Trotsky next speaks of the Romanovs and their supporters, and it’s here that any pretence of impartiality or balance disappears entirely. Trotsky’s words positively drip hatred and venom. He criticises their intelligence, understanding, lack of compassion, cruelty. He compares them to other monarchies overthrown in earlier revolutions, specifically the French and English, but ranging widely and knowledgeably over centuries of history. His anger and scorn come through in every word, and, while the various overthrown Kings are shown as weak and contemptible, he puts much of the blame on the Queens in virulent, misogynistic prose.

The whole establishment of the historical, political and philosophical background to the Revolution is excellent, so long as the reader keeps Trotsky’s bias firmly in mind at all times. The following sections then go into an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the period from February – the beginning of the 1917 insurrection – to October, when the Bolsheviks finally came to power. I found these parts much harder to follow, because Trotsky assumes a good deal of familiarity with the political stance of the many factions and personalities involved, and therefore often doesn’t explain them. I found I was constantly referring to the lists at the back of the book, which give brief summaries of each of the parties and explain the unfamiliar terms that appear frequently in the text. These lists are very good in that they are concise and focused, but I still found myself confused and glazing over at many points. As the book goes on (and on), I gradually grew to have a greater understanding of all these factions and their leaders, so that the last third was much clearer to me than the middle section when they are referred to first. If I had the strength of mind, I’m sure that a re-read of those middle chapters would be much easier, but on the whole, by the end, I felt I had gleaned enough to understand the overall progress of the Revolution even if some of the detail had passed over my head.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, mainly when talking of Stalin or the bourgeoisie, he is sarcastic and often quite humorous. The Romanovs and imperialists in general bring out his anger and contempt. These are all written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and, I admit, inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. I would find my critical faculties had switched off, and become suddenly aware of tears in my eyes – the power of the demagogue reaching beyond speech onto paper, indeed! These passages break up the more factual stuff, and remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

By the time Trotsky was writing this, Lenin was of course dead, and Stalin had come to power. Trotsky appears to have three major aims in addition to recounting the history: firstly, to show that he himself played a crucial and central role in events; secondly, to prove that while he and Lenin may have disagreed on some practical issues, their political philosophies had been closely aligned; and thirdly, and leading on from the previous two, that Stalin’s attempt to re-write history must be exposed and repudiated. Stalin, Trotsky suggests, is deliberately changing history as it relates to Lenin and Trotsky, in order to justify his own policies – which, by extension, Trotsky believes are out of line with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Revolution.

Again, he often assumes more understanding of the variations between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism than this poor reader has, and it began to feel like those endless nights down the pub in the ’70s when my fellow leftist unionists (usually the men) would start arguing over abstruse points of political ideology and calling each other names, generally after their fifth pint or so. It all seemed rather… trivial, though that feels like an inappropriate word given the many millions of people who have suffered and died under the yoke of these ideologies over decades. But Trotsky’s sycophancy over Lenin, self-aggrandisement, and sarcasm and spite towards Stalin ensured that any lingering affection I may have harboured for the idea of a socialist revolution dissipated long before I reached the end of the book. Power undoubtedly corrupts and I couldn’t quite see that the leadership of the USSR was much improvement over the admittedly hideous Romanovs in the end.

A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. It gets the full five-stars from me, though I freely admit the fifth one may be due purely to the euphoria I felt on finishing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Modern Classics.

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Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

edmund burke coverThere is such a thing as society….

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-

Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.

I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I’m glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke’s life, philosophy and legacy.

The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke’s life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.

edmund-burke

Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke’s core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.

This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn’t please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

Jesse Norman
Jesse Norman

There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke’s influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman’s interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society’s needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)

Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn’t require any pre-knowledge of Burke’s contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke’s influence still resonates in politics today.

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Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery

A roller-coaster ride…

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Atmosphere of HopeIn December this year, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Paris to make decisions on how to cap carbon emissions at a level that will ensure that global temperatures will rise by no more than 2° Celcius compared to pre-industrial levels. This book is a summary of where we are now and an action plan for the future.

The book is heavily polemical, very much Tim Flannery’s personal attempt to influence the decision makers. As a scientist and leading environmentalist of long-standing, Flannery is Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, a member of the Australian Independent Climate Council and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council; so he’s certainly qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

This was a bit of a roller-coaster read for me, both in terms of style and content. In the introduction, Flannery lays out his stall. Taking as his starting point his own earlier book The Weather Makers, he sets out to show how things have developed over the decade since, where his opinions have changed over the years, and what he now thinks are the best ways forward if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. At this stage, I was concerned I might find the book unreadable. His style is abrasive, self-aggrandizing and arrogant and much of the introduction and early chapters read like a piece of self-advertisement. He mentions his previous book umpteen times, dismissing anyone who has criticised any aspect of it over the years, and spends far too long justifying his then conclusions. In fact, at times there is a sense almost of paranoia – as if he is the victim of a conspiracy of vested interests trying to discredit his work. He is vitriolic about the Abbott government in Australia – still in power when he was writing but now gone. Of course, as the cliché goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

Hard to believe people are still building them...
Hard to believe people are still building them…

However, having vented his spleen, Flannery then settles down into a series of well-written chapters where he lays out the current situation very clearly. He starts with a bleak picture of what may happen if temperatures are not contained to the 2°C target – to the Arctic and Antarctic, to forests, wildlife and oceans, and not least to humanity in those parts of the world most sensitive to rising temperatures. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, but brought up to date with the latest science. Flannery assumes throughout that by this time only those with vested interests in the carbon industries are still denying the link between man’s activities and climate change, and so is dismissive and even occasionally virulent about deniers. There is throughout a feeling of urgency – no time left to waste preaching to the unconverted, let’s just ignore them and get on with what needs to be done. Fine by me, but this is not a book to win over waverers with charm.

The next few chapters take us through individual aspects of energy production, starting with the dirty ones and moving on to the clean. This was the part of the book that gave me a sense of hope – assuming Flannery’s figures are correct, and I see no reason to doubt them, then fossil fuels seem to be losing their overwhelming attractiveness as renewables become both more efficient and cheaper due to economies of scale. We’re nowhere near out of the woods, but Flannery made me feel as if perhaps we’ve spotted the path.

North Western Glacier Alaska - 1940 and 2005
North Western Glacier Alaska – 1940 and 2005

In the final section, Flannery discusses how he believes we should proceed. His position is that, even in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that we reduce fossil fuel use to zero over the next few decades, we will still have the problem of existing CO2 in the atmosphere to deal with. He discusses the difficulties of the task and goes into some detail on some of the schemes that have been put forward. To my unscientific mind, lots of these sound like pie-in-the-sky schemes, or actually poison-in-the-sky, to be more accurate. Flannery himself isn’t keen on the kind of geo-engineering scheme that suggests pumping other stuff, like sulphur, into the atmosphere in order to induce cooling, on the grounds that firstly, we can’t foresee all the possible implications and secondly, the underlying problem of too much carbon still remains.

Hope - Harnessing solar power in Spain
Hope – Harnessing solar power in Spain

He suggests what he calls a ‘third way’ – a mixture of preparing for climate change by making necessary adaptations at a local level while attempting to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by a variety of schemes, from massive seaweed farms to storing carbon in rocks and plastics, that he feels could be effective without the risks of geo-engineering. To be honest, much of this sounded impractical and a bit like wishful thinking to me, but hey! Most of it was well over my head scientifically and he’s an expert, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s always been my opinion that it will have to be the scientists who solve this problem in the end, and the role of governments and the people should be to give them the finances and resources they need, while trying to stop any of them accidentally blowing up the galaxy in their enthusiasm.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

However, after cheering me up in the earlier chapters, I’m afraid this final section plunged me back into gloom – the sheer scale of the task and the short-termism of so many governments make it all seem pretty overwhelming. I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps Flannery had done this deliberately, so that no-one would be approaching the Paris Conference feeling over-confident. Overall well worth reading – a good introduction for anyone new to the subject and a thorough update for those with a little more knowledge. Let’s hope the politicians attending the Conference will pay attention to the science more than the politics for once… the world will be watching. Won’t we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye

losing israelHome is where the heart breaks…

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In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel. Her parents were kibbutzniks there, but emigrated to Britain before Donahaye’s birth. Donahaye made the first of her many visits to Israel at the age of ten, a visit that had a profound effect on her when she saw her mother blossom amongst the places and language of her youth, becoming someone other than the person Donahaye knew. This not altogether positive experience was followed by other trips during which Donahaye came to love and admire her mother’s country deeply, absorbing from her extended family the Zionist version of the history of the State of Israel as it has become mythologised by those who have lived, fought and died there since its foundation. For many years, Donahaye didn’t question this version of events.

Two sides to every story... Israeli soldiers in Gaza Photo:Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters
Two sides to every story…
Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Photo: Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters

However at the age of forty, on discovering that her grandfather had been involved in the driving out of the Arabs from their villages in 1947, Donahaye started a journey that led her to learn the other history of Israel – the one that talks about ethnic cleansing of the Arabs, that explains the refugee camps, that suggests that the Palestinian Arabs saw this land as home as much as the Jews, either of Palestine or from the diaspora, ever did, and had as much right to it. This book is the story of that journey, as Donahaye takes the reader through her gradual awakening to the full complexities of the history of this troubled region and her agonised process of reassessment of the country she still loves and feels inextricably drawn towards.

Two sides to every story... Members of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall Photo: Al-Jazeera
Two sides to every story…
Members of the Palestinian al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall
Photo: al-Jazeera

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first because, though not unflawed, it is in many ways an exceptional read, whichever side of the Zionist debate the reader might tend towards. The book is short, but in truth I felt it was also a little too long for its subject matter. The tone is unbrokenly melancholic and this made it quite a monotone read. There are too many divergences to describe bird-watching experiences, although these passages are often beautifully written and she frequently uses them as metaphors for the migrations of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

I also felt Donahaye must have been remarkably unaware of politics if she had managed to live for forty years without being conscious of the other side of the Palestinian question. I could perhaps have understood that more had she lived in Israel, where the atmosphere of constant threat from outside might encourage a national blindness to other viewpoints. But living in the UK where there are at least as many critics of Israel’s stance towards the Palestinian Arabs as supporters of it, then one would have to have no interest in the subject at all to remain ignorant of at least some of the arguments. While her investigations did uncover some small facts that are not generally known, the big picture that seemed to shock her so much is one that has been debated and argued over for decades. As such, I didn’t find that the book really added much to the debate – though perhaps it would in Israel, if it is an accurate picture Donahaye paints of it as almost a police state where anyone who tries to find out about its history is immediately suspect and subjected to state surveillance.

Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex
Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex

Bearing that in mind then, for me the chief interest in the book was in seeing how her discoveries affected her emotionally, as she gradually changed her mind about the unarguable rightness of the Israeli position. Torn between her love for the nation and her horror at finding out how the Palestinian Arabs had been treated by it, she describes her struggles eloquently, using some beautiful, almost poetic language, even if just occasionally I found that in her new-found awareness she was veering perhaps a little too far towards the maudlin end of liberal political correctness. She talks not just of the politics and history of Israel, but of the land itself – its beauty, its wildlife and the lack of water which, she suggests perceptively, may in the end be a crucial factor in determining how the future pans out. When she speaks of her family in Israel, we see how the fear and anxiety they live with daily affects their opinions and attitudes. She writes emotively of how her researches upset the elder members of her family, challenging the foundations of their loyalty to their nation.

Jasmine Donahaye
Jasmine Donahaye

The book is at its most profound, I feel, when she discusses the ways histories are made by those with a vested interest in ensuring their version is accepted. Renaming of Arab villages after they had been cleared of their occupants, to give them Hebrew names and to, in some cases, suggest links back to the Biblical era, is shown as a means both of legitimising the Israeli State and of obliterating the long history between that earlier time and the present and, with it, obliterating the suggestion of any other occupants having legitimate claims to the land. Donahaye describes how the older members of her family still tend to use the old Arab names that were current in their childhood, while young people are forgetting not only the old names, but the very fact that they ever existed. And, in parallel with this, she shows how easy, and perhaps necessary, it can be for the people on one side of a conflict to dehumanise those on the other.

An emotional exploration of one woman’s journey, this might not change the terms of the debate, but it certainly casts light on it. And is an eloquent testimony to the heart-rending that can be caused when the nation one loves acts in ways one finds hard to bear.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Seren.

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The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum edited by Iain Hollingshead

the lunatics have taken over the asylumTo whom it may concern…

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As any Brit will know, The Daily Telegraph is one of our more right-wing newspapers. This book contains a collection culled from the Letters to the Editor section of the paper, submitted by the intelligent, the witty, the grumpy and the occasionally downright weird people who are part of the readership. The letters cover the period from the last general election in 2010 through our experiment in Conservative/Liberal coalition government, and give a great flavour of the issues and scandals that have exercised the minds of retired colonels and maiden aunts in the leafy suburbs of Conservative England. While I try not to discourage anyone from any good book, this one is really only for UK political geeks. Many of the entries are humorous, but a lot of them depend on the reader knowing the personalities and politics of contemporary Britain.

The selection is grouped under headings such as Goodbye Gordon, Chillaxing Conservatives, Swivel-eyed Loons, etc. If you don’t get these references, then I suggest the book is not for you. However, if you do, from whatever side of the political spectrum you hail, you will probably find this as entertaining as I did. There’s no doubt that Letters to the Editor has become a competitive sport in Britain with people vying to be the funniest or the most intelligent or the most condescending as their character dictates, and the result is some very fine humour, intentional or otherwise. The book is also a lighthearted reminder of some of the treasured political moments of the last five years – just the thing to read in the wake of the weirdest General Election results Britain has ever seen to remind us not to take it all so seriously. Buffoons exist on either side of the political divide, so at least while they’re wrecking the economy and destroying our society, we can be sure our politicians will always entertain us…

Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders 'you never promised me a rose garden...'
Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders
‘you never promised me a rose garden…’

To give a little flavour of the book, I’ve tried to select a few letters that don’t require an in-depth knowledge of the British political scene…

Sir – Dear Lord, I know that I don’t talk to you that much, but I note that you have recently taken away my favourite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favourite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favourite musician, Michael Jackson, and my favourite cricketer, Alec Bedser.

I just wanted to let you know that my favourite Prime Minister is Gordon Brown. Amen

David Say

 

On the TV Debates held before the 2010 election

Sir – The most astonishing fact is that Gordon Brown finished third out of three and his acolytes are relieved. I dread their ambitions for the country.

Kiran Solanki

Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling a member of the public 'a bigoted woman'... (source: bbc)
Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling an ‘elderly’ member of the public a ‘bigoted woman’…
(source: bbc)

Sir – I would think that Gillian Duffy, sixty-five, is probably more annoyed at being described as ‘elderly’ than a ‘bigot’.

Andrew J. Morrison (64 years and 355 days)

 

Sir – David Cameron wants to help us old people to downsize. I am already two inches shorter than I used to be, so I don’t need his help.

John de Lange

 

Sir – May I suggest that if the police are to use water cannons to disperse rioting students, they include some soap in the tank?

Finlay Mason

 

On the subject of gay marriage

Sir – Being a devoted husband, as well as a staunch and active member of the Conservative Party, I’d be grateful to learn what further changes it will adopt, especially in regard to monogamy. My wife could do with a bit more help around the house.

Robert Vincent

A great gift for the political nerd in your life – I would mention Christmas stockings but for fear that you might all lynch me…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Constable.

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Sailing Close to the Wind by Dennis Skinner

sailing close to the windLet’s do the Time Warp again…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now in his eighties and still an active Labour Member of (the UK) Parliament, it seems to me as if Dennis Skinner has been around forever. Certainly he’s been there since Parliament was televised, sitting in his usual seat beside the passage and making his famous quips at the opposition speakers…and sometimes those from his own party too. He claims that he didn’t want to write this book of memoirs, but has finally given in to the requests of many people who have enjoyed his public speaking. Certainly the book’s progress to publication seems to have been a difficult one – it has been delayed and delayed till it reached the stage that I wondered whether it would ever actually appear. At first, Skinner was shown as the sole author, then for a while the pre-order details said that it was to be co-written by Kevin Maguire, a left-wing journalist – but this finished version has reverted back to being credited to Skinner alone.

A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change...
A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change…

All of which might help to explain why the book is, quite frankly, a bit messy. It’s a cross between a rather patchy memoir and a statement of Skinner’s political convictions, with occasional musings on other subjects, such as his love for London parks. That’s not to say it’s not interesting – it is. Well, I’ll narrow that down a little – it’s interesting if you happen to be a left-wing UK political nerd who remembers the miners’ strike and gets nostalgic over the thought of those halcyon days when we marched through the streets of wherever we happened to be at the time, shouting ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ Skinner is an unreconstructed socialist and proud of it. Following his father into the mines, he is of ‘good working-class stock’ (which was in fact the title the book was listed as at one stage of its production), and still sees himself very much as a class warrior. His hatred for the Conservatives is visceral and often expressed in terms not unlike a small boy calling nasty names. On the other hand, he is strangely unforthcoming about the changes in the Labour party over the decades – he surely must have hated and despised the New Labour ‘project’, but he keeps that pretty much under wraps, while making it clear he thinks it’s well past time for Labour to get back to its roots.

...plus c'est la même chose
…plus c’est la même chose

The thing is that politics has moved on so far from the seventies and eighties (whether for better or worse is for each person to decide for him/herself) and Skinner’s views now come over as so out-dated, as does his manner of expressing them. (It may – or may not – have been acceptable to call a woman politician ‘darling’ in the seventies, but not so much today.) I would have agreed with him politically about 80% of the time in the Thatcher era, but those days, and the society that existed then, are gone, and won’t be coming back. I felt at points as if I had accidentally stepped into a time-machine. Too much of the book is spent on him recounting his best insults – many of them were quite funny at the time (and many others were just childish), but I did start wondering if the tax-payers were paying for an MP or a comedian. However I felt that was more to do with the uneven structure of the book, than a real reflection on Skinner’s career. He doesn’t really say much about any of the committees he served on (I assume there were some) and the details he gives of the political highpoints of his career are too few and far between. He does go quite deeply into the miners’ strike, obviously with a very strong bias towards the miners, and that was interesting. But the book is too heavily weighted to the Thatcher era – he glosses over the last Labour administration and then gets into his stride again with a series of childish personal insults about the current batch of Tories. (It always amuses me how both sides think the other side behaves badly – and it amused me how hoity-toity Skinner, the arch-insulter, got when Cameron hurled a couple in his direction. Wouldn’t it be great to have a few adults in politics for a change?)

Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners' Strike
Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners’ Strike

Overall, I found this in parts interesting, in parts annoying, and as a whole, too unstructured to be completely satisfying. I can’t imagine it appealing to many people outwith the Old Labour tradition, but for them I’m sure it will be an essential read, as it was for me. If for no other reason than that it gives us the chance to do the Time Warp again…


 

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

roy jenkins2An affectionate portrait…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father’s had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the ’60s and ’70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the ‘permissive society’, while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain’s entry to the Common Market.

The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party - David Owen, Shorley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers.
The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen.

Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we (in the UK) all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.

Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it’s clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.

John Campbell
John Campbell

John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.

The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins’ life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins’ personal life in the early part of the book – specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland (another Labour politician), then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.

The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins - a marriage that lasted till Jenkins' death despite his many affairs.
The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins – a marriage that lasted till Jenkins’ death despite his many affairs.

I did feel that Campbell’s partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell’s approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left if the Labour Party – it wasn’t so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.

Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word ‘buffoon’ – no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable – so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins’ life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice – highly recommended (to political nerds like me, that is, not to normal folk).

In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.
In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.

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Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish by Lesley Riddoch

One vision of a possible future…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

blossomThe run-up to this September’s referendum on Scottish Independence has led to a rash of books on the subject of how Scotland should best be governed, as we all indulge in some intense navel-gazing. Some books attempt to take an unbiased approach, others are arguing strongly for one side or the other. This one is an unashamed polemic, arguing not so much for independence as it’s currently being offered, but for a return to localism in politics – a vision inspired by a damning comparison of Scotland to the similarly sized countries in the Nordic belt.

Lesley Riddoch has been one of Scotland’s leading journalists for decades, both in print and on radio and television. She draws on many of the stories she has covered in her long career in painting a picture of Scotland that is, quite frankly, bleak. Her position is that the root cause of Scotland’s poor showing in any comparisons of health or life expectancy is the people’s lack of control over their own environment. In Riddoch’s view, simply separating Scotland from the UK would merely mean a change in location of an over-centralised state from London to Edinburgh – instead she argues strongly for a return to much smaller local councils with real powers; and for strong community schemes, particularly with regard to housing and health, where residents are able to decide their own priorities and take control of their own surroundings.

Scottish Parliament
Scottish Parliament

To make her point, Riddoch looks in general at the history of housing and land ownership in Scotland, pointing out that still today 60% of the land is owned by 1,000 people – often the same families as controlled it in the days of feudalism. She highlights the emptiness and lack of productivity of much of the land – carefully managed as ‘wilderness’ pleasure grounds for the benefit of the few – and contrasts this with the cabin culture of the Nordic states, where city-dwellers regularly own a small piece of the countryside where they can retreat to nature for weekends and summer breaks. In Scotland, in Riddoch’s view, city-dwellers have almost no contact with the countryside, thus missing out on the health benefits of a more outdoors existence; but perhaps more importantly, feeling that they have no control over how this vast resource is managed and controlled.

Lesley Riddoch in the Hebrides
Lesley Riddoch in the Hebrides

Riddoch offers ideas for solutions to the problems she highlights by giving examples of, in her view, more successful forms of land management and community housing schemes. As a trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust, she was involved in the successful community buy-out after years of mismanagement by a variety of absentee landlords. She shows the difficulties of bringing the buy-out to fruition, but gives a rosy picture of how community involvement has improved the lives of the islanders and slowed the drift to the cities. She discusses in depth the tradition of tenement-dwelling in Scottish cities, suggesting that with some modernisation this type of shared housing space is a way of keeping community spirit within cities and stopping the spread of housing out into what she clearly sees as soulless suburbs. She suggests that the decline in formal use not just of Gaelic but of the much more broadly based Scots leads to a sense of inferiority and unwillingness to speak publicly on the part of those for whom Scots is still the first language. (She reminds us of one of my own pet hates – that a child speaking Scots will be told to speak ‘properly’ – i.e. speak English.) And she draws on some successful community health schemes to bolster her argument that local involvement works more effectively than national government in improving health outcomes.

Typical road sign in Gaelic and English...but not in Scots.
Typical road sign in Gaelic and English…but not in Scots.

Riddoch states quite clearly at the outset that the book is a polemic and has carefully cherry-picked her examples to back up her arguments. Overall, I found myself in agreement with her more often than not, though I do get somewhat tired of being told how great the Nordic countries are – I read Scandi crime and they seem just as dismally drunken and angst-ridden as your average Scot as far as I can see, and with even worse weather! Riddoch produces statistics to back up her arguments of course and, while I happily believe them, I also believe that statistics can be found to support any argument anyone chooses to make. Sometimes the statistics that are left out are just as revealing. A quick Google search brings up statistics that ‘prove’ Scotland is pretty much in line with the rest of the Nordic belt in terms of crime, access to healthcare etc; just as much as the ones Riddoch quotes ‘prove’ the opposite. So I felt Riddoch over-egged that portion of the pudding, but she’s by no means alone in that – it’s become a Scottish tradition to praise all things Nordic. It’s also a Scottish tradition to run ourselves down and I felt Riddoch did a little too much of that. It seemed to me that, while what she said about the gloomy aspects of Scottish health and welfare were on the whole unarguable, she failed to mention that great strides have been made over recent years, especially since devolution. Still a long, long way to go, of course – but I did feel that a little bit of self-congratulation wouldn’t have gone amiss amidst the overall message of doom and gloom. But maybe I’m just a glass-half-full kind of gal…

Mebbes no' the brawest yet but aye the bonniest...
Mebbe no’ the best yet but aye the bonniest…

The very fact that Riddoch got me agreeing and arguing with her in turn shows that I found this a thought-provoking and provocative read – not one that’s directly related to the independence debate, though definitely on the Vote Yes side, but one that argues beyond that for one kind of society we might aspire to if we’re willing to make fundamental reforms to our system of government. Recommended as an interesting addition to our current obsession – but one for Scots only, I would think.

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Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

Sympathetic, but still revealing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

days of fireFor those of us on this side of the Atlantic, US politics has only a marginal relevance in normal times, especially since the end of the Cold War. But following the atrocity of 9/11, Bush was suddenly thrust on to the world stage in a way he had not anticipated and overnight his pronouncements and actions became as important over here as those of our own leaders – especially since Blair instantly committed the UK to go along with the US wherever Bush might lead them. As a result, the Bush presidency is to me the most interesting of modern times.

In this book, Peter Baker, the Chief White House Correspondent of the New York Times, sets out to examine the relationship between Bush and Vice-President Cheney – an unusual relationship from the start since Cheney made it clear that he had no intention to run for the presidency at any point in the future. The received wisdom back in the early years was that Bush was a bumbling buffoon riding on his father’s achievements; and that Cheney, one of his father’s henchmen, was the power behind the throne – a shadowy and rather machiavellian figure – the puppet-master. Baker’s position is that Cheney’s influence was strong in the early years and that his support after 9/11 was crucial, but that ultimately Bush was his own man even then, and that Cheney’s influence gradually waned as time passed.

bush cheney banner

Baker’s account is very heavily weighted towards foreign affairs and the ‘war on terror’, particularly Iraq, presumably because this is the area in which Cheney was most involved. Although domestic policies are discussed from time to time, the coverage of them is nothing like as detailed or insightful. Again that works well for me, as a Brit, since it is the foreign policy that most interests me – however I felt it was a bit of a lack in the scope of the book. The other major weakness of the book, I felt, was a disregard of the influence of other world leaders on Bush’s position (and vice-versa) – we remember him trying to accommodate Blair’s domestic troubles over Iraq and we vividly remember the infamous ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ phrase hurled (though not directly by Bush) at a disobedient France (now apparently ‘America’s oldest ally’, since Syria). The attempt to gain the support of allies is discussed, particularly the whole UN resolution saga, but not with the depth that might have been expected, considering how much it damaged the position of the US in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. Interestingly Hans Blix doesn’t get a single mention in the whole book, while Jacques Chirac rates only two.

bsh-cheney-record-sac1224ac

However, other than these omissions or weaknesses, the book is an extremely thorough and detailed account of the workings of the White House during a presidency hit by catastrophe and disaster – from 9/11 to Katrina to the economic meltdown. Overall Baker takes a sympathetic view of both men, though he doesn’t shy away from discussing the more unforgivable aspects of the period either – torture, water-boarding, Guantanamo et al. He does make the point, and makes it well, that such unconstitutional actions had precedents in previous presidencies at times of crisis, and shows how Bush pulled back from the worst excesses as the threat level decreased. Cheney however is shown as having developed an almost paranoid fear of another terrorist assault that led him to want to extend the power of the executive to extraordinary levels, and to justify almost any form of behaviour, no matter how morally repugnant, as necessary in the cause of security.

_24653_bush_cheney

In the first half, the first four years, the book is very much about both men. However, in the second term, Cheney begins to fade away as Rice becomes the most prominent of the President’s advisers, and the book becomes much more of a biography of Bush alone. This tallies with Baker’s depiction of Cheney’s gradual loss of importance to Bush, but does mean that the focus on the relationship gets a bit lost somewhere along the way. But that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating record of a turbulent time in US history. I came out of it feeling that I understood Bush much better, but that somehow Cheney remained a bit of a shadowy figure.

Peter Baker
Peter Baker

In conclusion, this is a well written, detailed and interesting account, but not the complete picture of the period and I’m sure not the last word either on the Bush presidency or on his relationship with Cheney. The author’s sympathy is more for the men than for their policies, necessarily; and as such it is a good reminder of how we ask people to perform impossible jobs and then criticise them for mistakes or failures. Bush and Cheney made some serious mistakes, not lightly forgotten or forgiven, but this book gives a revealing picture of the almost intolerable pressures they had to deal with, and of the toll it took of them. Despite some weaknesses, the book is a major work that sheds a good deal of light on the time, and it therefore gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me.

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JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

“…an incalculable loss of the future…” Ted Sorensen

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

jfk's last hundred daysWith the 50th anniversary coming up of John F Kennedy’s assassination, a plethora of books will no doubt be appearing over the next few months, tackling his history from a variety of angles. In this one, Thurston Clarke, journalist and historian, looks in detail at the last 100 days of JFK’s life, using this period as a jumping off point to examine both the politics and personality of the man.

I found the format of the book quite off-putting at first. Clarke will take a day and mention, for example, that JFK attended a meeting about Vietnam – Clarke will then divert to the past to explain the background to the situation as it was on that day. Next JFK might have a meeting on, say, civil rights – and off we go on another trip to the past. Then JFK might go off to do a bit of sailing, and we’ll get a chunk of information about his personal life. It’s all a bit loose and unstructured; and sometimes Clarke will mention something that he simply assumes the reader will know – for example, at one point he says ‘They discussed Massachusetts politics, race, and whether Alger Hiss was guilty (Kennedy thought he was).’ Since this is the only mention of Hiss in the whole book, this Brit was left with no idea who he was or what he was apparently guilty of. However once I got used to the style, I found the book both informative and interesting.

jfk yacht

The personal side of the book gave a picture of a rather odd man: a hypochondriacal, lying, sexually obsessed elitist. And yet Clarke reminds us regularly that JFK thought of himself as a man of the people and was happier amongst the workers – I can’t say that he gave any examples that convinced me of this. In fact I came away with the impression of him as a Gatsby-ish figure – constantly changing his clothes, obsessed with appearances, living a lavish lifestyle, needing constant company (even to the extent of having an aide in the room with him until he fell asleep) and in thrall to his own place in history. And yet I didn’t feel it was Clarke’s intention at all to do a hatchet job on him – quite the reverse, in fact. Some of the passages are so sycophantic as to make quite uncomfortable reading. The endless list of times JFK cried (there to show us what a caring person he was) was simply odd – who wouldn’t cry at the death of a brother or a child? It was as if Clarke felt he had to remind us that JFK was human after all. And I have to say that Jackie came over as a difficult, spoilt child – not unlike Daisy, to continue the Gatsby comparison.

jfk and jackie

The politics was much more interesting to me and handled better, I felt. Despite the non-linear style, Clarke gave pretty clear pictures of the background to the things that mattered most to JFK – civil rights, avoiding nuclear war, trying to find a way out of Vietnam, trying to get Cuba to break its links with the USSR, some attempt to redress the extreme poverty in parts of the USA and, of course, beating the Russians to the moon. To have achieved as much as he did in his short time as President was indeed remarkable, and Clarke suggests at the end that he would have gone further with many of these projects had he had a second term, and quotes many sources to back up his conviction that JFK would not have allowed the USA to get sucked in to a ground war in Vietnam. I found the book convincing on all these aspects and, given that the public at the time didn’t know about the private side of his life, it seemed to me very understandable that so many people, particularly amongst the young, were so devastated at his early death.

jfk runnymede

Clarke writes very movingly of the assassination itself. He tells of the warnings that JFK chose to ignore, the security measures he refused to take, believing that he had to allow the people to see and speak to him.

“Once their tears had dried, or before, they began naming roads and bridges, tunnels, highways and buildings for him, creating a grief-stricken empire of asphalt, mortar, brick, and bronze so extensive that if you extinguished every light on earth except those illuminating something named for him, astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center would have seen a web of lights stretching across Europe and North America, and others scattered through Africa and Asia…”

Clarke concludes that the outpouring of grief at Kennedy’s death was ‘for his promise as well as for his accomplishments, a promise that had become increasingly evident during his last hundred days’, and by the end of the book he had convinced this reader at least of the truth of that. An unusual structure for a biography, but thoroughly researched, well written and ultimately an easy and enjoyable read that succeeded in revealing something of the personal flaws without detracting from the political achievements of this remarkable man.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Last Man Standing by Jack Straw

last man standingWell-written and interesting…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unlike some of the rushed memoirs that came out immediately following Labour’s loss in the UK general election in 2010, Jack Straw has taken time to reflect on his period in office and as a result this book is perhaps a bit more thoughtful than some of the earlier ones. Although the whole Blair/Brown saga is touched on, (how could it not be?), thankfully Straw hasn’t built the whole book round it. In fact, he gives a picture of himself as a man who concentrated very much on the responsibilities of whichever department he was working in and largely stayed out of the party wrangling going on around him.

Straw starts with a quick resumé of his life before Labour took office in 1997 but most of the book is focused on his time in power. Having held two of the Great Offices of State as Home and then Foreign Secretary, Straw is well-placed to discuss the workings of government at the highest levels, and to give some insights into the major events of the time – the Stephen Lawrence debate, prison overcrowding, the formation of the new Justice Department and the Supreme Court amongst many other things. Obviously Iraq and the Middle East rank high in this, particularly as Straw gradually found his own approach diverging from Blair’s. However, again, he manages not to get bogged down in the well-tramped ground of the lead up to the Iraq war, instead expanding the discussion to include his views on Israel, Iran and the policies of the US, UK and Europe in regard to the region. While there is much in here about UK domestic politics, as Foreign Secretary Straw worked closely with the US administration and talks extensively about his relationships with people of the stature of Rice and Powell as they worked together to maintain a common approach to foreign policy matters.

straw and condy telegraph co uk

If the book has a weakness, it is that sometimes Straw assumes that we know and remember events as clearly as he does and so doesn’t take time to explain the background as fully as he might. For instance, he refers to Brown’s remarks about Mrs Duffy during the election campaign, but doesn’t remind us what these remarks were.* As a bit of a political junkie and because the events were so recent, this didn’t present a problem for me but may do so for US readers. Even in the UK I suspect that in 10 years time memories will have faded and I wonder if the book’s longevity will be affected as a result. Perhaps that’s a recommendation to read it now!

Overall, a well written, interesting biography leavened by a considerable amount of self-deprecating humour – very enjoyable.

*(Mrs Duffy was a member of the public who complained to Brown about immigration. He later referred to her privately as a ‘bigoted woman’, not realising his microphone was still switched on. The BBC kindly put the comments on air in the midst of an interview with Brown, leading to a huge press hoohah and a good deal of public humiliation for Brown.)

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Decision Points by George W Bush

Some interesting insights…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

decision pointsBush has structured this book around separate strands of his presidency rather than giving a linear account. This is a successful device in that everything relating to a subject – for instance, the financial crisis – is together in one chapter making it easy to read the book in sections. And this is just as well, because sometimes the saccharin tone Bush employs means that, like rich cake, a little goes a long way.

The first couple of chapters cover Bush’s early life and career prior to becoming president. I know it’s traditional for memoirs to cover this period but I felt, as I usually do, that I was only really interested in the chapters relating to his time in power. In fact, I really struggled to get past the early part of the book. His description of his battle with alcohol, his journey towards deep Christian faith and his love for his family was so cloyingly sweet I nearly gave up.

But either persevere or jump straight to Chapter 3. Once Bush starts talking about the decisions made in his presidency the book becomes very readable. Of course it’s full of self-justification – nearly all memoirs are – but nonetheless it does give insights into the thinking that lay behind some of the major policy decisions of the last decade. It’s not the most in-depth political book and it shuffles pretty rapidly past some of the more awkward decisions like Guantanamo but you do get a sense that he didn’t take the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lightly and that, agree with him or not, he genuinely believed he was doing his best not just for the USA but also for the Middle East. As I read I wondered how many presidential memoirs have been so heavily weighted towards international affairs – prompted by 9/11 the Bush presidency was forced to transform the USA into an outward looking country and to assess the impact it has and could have in the rest of the world.

george w

I can’t say this book changed my views of any of the political decisions of the time, nor did I come out of it feeling that Bush was a secret intellectual, but I did find the chapters on foreign policy interesting and to some degree enlightening. And overall, apart from his unfortunate tendency to descend into pure schmaltz on occasion, I found it an enjoyable read. Recommended.

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Road to Referendum by Iain MacWhirter

Faster than the Flying Scotsman…

😐 😐 😐

road to referendumIain MacWhirter is a journalist and commentator who has spent the last decade or so covering the affairs of the Scottish Parliament. In the run up to the referendum on Scottish Independence, due to be held in September 2014, he has presented a short TV series and produced this companion book ostensibly to shed some light on why we have reached this point at this time. The blurb on the back of this book claims it is ‘accessible and perfect for anyone unfamiliar with Scottish history’ and ‘essential reading for anyone who cares about where the UK may go next.’

The main problem is that I can’t really work out who this book is for. The ‘Scottish history’ portion of it covers 650 years in 127 pages, so not what even the most generous reviewer could describe as ‘in-depth’. We leap from Bannockburn, rush past Flodden and gallop on to the Union of 1707 faster than the Flying Scotsman. So anyone ‘unfamiliar with Scottish history’ at the beginning is going to be still largely in the same state at the end. Not that I’m saying the history is wrong, and MacWhirter does explicitly remind the reader that he’s not a historian, but it seems to me he has carefully cherry-picked those aspects of history that bolster his argument, and does a fine job of casting sarcastic and savage little barbs at Scots modern and ancient along the way, which I found deeply unendearing.

So, based on this first half, I can’t imagine many Scots who are likely to read this book will learn much they don’t already know, nor will most of us be shattered by the revelation that Braveheart wasn’t precisely historically accurate. And for non-Scots the history is so superficial (and mostly unreferenced) that it seems a bit pointless.

Then there’s the problem of his portrayal of the Scottish psyche –

“Most countries celebrate their victories, their achievements, their noble ventures. Not the Scots; they celebrate their failures. Scotland may have been a cradle of the Industrial revolution, a hub of the European Enlightenment, and the country that invented everything from paper currency to penicillin, but what gets remembered is the Darien disaster.”

Hmm! Not any Scots I know. I have never seen a Scotsman sobbing into his pint over Darien, but ask any Scotsman who invented anything and he’ll claim it was us, even if it wasn’t. In fact, I’d say Scots are noted for excessive pride in their country rather than the reverse. I suspect MacWhirter’s attitude may reflect a very small and incestuous part of our society – the politicians and journalists huddled in middle-class Edinburgh and Westminster.

Iain MacWhirter
Iain MacWhirter

In the second half of the book, MacWhirter brings us through from the 1960s to today, explaining the rise of the Scottish Nationalists and making the point that that has not necessarily been matched by a corresponding rise in Scottish Nationalism. This is the period he himself has lived through and this part of the book is considerably more detailed and fleshed out, though still with that very middle-class Edinburgh bias running through. MacWhirter doesn’t explicitly state his own political partiality, though he does at points take us through how his political attitudes have changed over time. However, he points out that many politicians think of him as an apologist for the Nationalists, and on the basis of this book I would have to agree (despite his constant harping on about how Alex Salmond is ‘obese’ – how that adds to the political debate is beyond my understanding.)

In case readers of this review think I am being hard on the book because I disagree with it, I should point out that I am currently tending towards the pro-Independence camp myself, so am largely in agreement with the main thrust of MacWhirter’s argument that Scotland could be a successful independent nation if it chooses. However, I would have preferred to see an unbiased account of the main arguments or to have been told up front that this book is a personal viewpoint heavily geared towards one side of the debate. A reasonably interesting read for Scottish political nerds (of whom I am one), but not an essential one for anyone else, I feel.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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